Family Law in the Pandemic
A look at co-parenting, financial and logistical issues caused by COVID-19 in Colorado
on December 29, 2020
Updated on February 8, 2021
From questions about co-parenting arrangements to delays in court proceedings to the shift to remote proceedings, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge effect on family law matters.
As soon as the pandemic hit in early 2020, the questions started rolling in. “Family law lawyers are constantly dealing with emergencies and fires,” says Eliza Steinberg of Griffiths Law in Lone Tree, Colorado. “Immediately, the phones started ringing off the hook with concerns about various family law issues.”
Co-Parenting in a Pandemic
The first floodgate, as Steinberg puts it, surrounded how the pandemic would affect Colorado residents who had co-parenting plans in place. Common questions included if it’s possible to restrict the other parent’s parenting time if they test positive; what can be done to help protect particularly vulnerable members of a household, such as elderly grandparents; and—eventually—disagreements over in-person and remote schooling. “It doesn’t matter what it is,” Steinberg says, “if you’re divorced, you’re probably going to have the exact opposite opinion of your former spouse.”
The most important thing to keep in mind, Steinberg says, is that the domestic relations court is there to look out for the best interests of the child—“not the best interest of the parents, not the best interest of the mother-in-law that’s living in the house, but the best interest of the child.”
The Availability of the Court, or Lack Thereof
Logistical issues popped up immediately. Steinberg says that, starting in mid-March, nearly every trial was canceled for a two-and-a-half month stretch, causing huge delays in the docket. “Some of my clients are not getting divorced in the same year that they filed for divorce,” she says. “And some of these are dragging out 15 to 24 months to get their case resolved.”
With the number of divorce filings rising, and because every family law case in Colorado goes through the court system, Steinberg says Coloradans looking to dissolve their marriage might be more motivated to reach a resolution in mediation or via arbitration, rather than waiting for a court hearing in the distant future.
“Unfortunately,” she says, “you’re going to stay married to the person that young no longer want to be married to for the next year if you don’t reach a resolution now. I’m telling clients right away in the first meeting, ‘You should probably file it sooner rather than later because your case is only going to get pushed further and further back the longer you wait.’”
Once remote court proceedings began happening, Steinberg says clients, lawyers and judges adjusted quickly, and she hopes that once in-person proceedings resume, courts will continue to rely on, for example, digital versions of courtroom exhibits instead of printed copies. “I can’t predict whether the courts will want to keep doing that,” she says, “but that would be very nice and, definitely, a cost-saving for the client.”
The Financial Impact
The costs of going through a divorce during the pandemic are another area of concern. “We can’t predict as well as we would have before COVID what a judge is going to do in a particular case,” says Steinberg.
For example, she says, if someone who has gone through a divorce in Colorado loses their job, the expectation is that the person will find another job so that they can fulfill their spousal or child support expectations. “COVID changed that presumption,” she says. “Does the fact that your kids are at home and remote-schooling reduce the court’s likelihood of saying, ‘You have to go work full-time?’ Some judges say yes and some judges say no.”
And some judges are reserving judgment. “They’re ordering mandatory reviews after six months have passed to see where we’re at,” Steinberg says. “And I think the result is that people are going to continue to be engaged in litigation for a longer period of time.”
The uncertainty could continue as long as the pandemic does. “It’s going to continue to be uncertain, because courts have very different opinions on its impact and whether the impact is long-term,” Steinberg says. “I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more certainty when the vaccine has been fully distributed. I think the court will be able to better measure it once things do return to normal.”
If you’re proceeding with family law matters during the pandemic, a credible attorney can help you wade through these types of issues.